The University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture has offered a concentration in preservation since 2007, but last academic year (2016-17) it offered for the first time a masters program in historic preservation. The new program is led by the former director of the school’s Rome Studies Program, Steven Semes, and, most excellently, is based on his masterwork, The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation.
This book is one of my bibles, and it is gratifying to see allusions to it – reasonably direct allusions, I must add – in his masters program’s mission statement:
The program emphasizes respect for continuities in architectural language and building culture as the basis for informed conservation of historic settings and the design of harmonious new ones.
After noting that almost half of the billings at architecture firms are for preservation projects, and that for many decades the trend has been, and continues to be, that “new construction in historic settings must distinguish itself by stylistic or material contrast,” the program’s statement of rationale adds:
The field has recently been energized by new perspectives that view the relationship between heritage resources and the contemporary built environment in terms of continuity rather than contrast, and subject to a conservation ethic in which architecture, urbanism, and historic preservation are collaborative specializations rather than autonomous disciplines.
That may be a “new perspective” but it has nonetheless been held, consciously or intuitively, by most people in cities and towns in America, Europe and wherever a society’s culture has come under attack by modern architecture, which is almost the entire world. That it can come across as a new perspective merely highlights the extent to which hundreds of years of practice in architecture have been frogmarched out of the picture by the modernists.
It is the beauty of Semes’s book, of his new preservation program, and of Notre Dame’s architecture program as a whole that they recognize that the time has come to resist.
True, even today, resistance may not want to challenge the reigning orthodoxy directly. The newest traditional curriculum in architecture education – at University Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples, Italy – has a mission statement that avoids any mention of the phenomenon that it would confront in any effort to restore beauty to architecture or its educational principles. Also out with a new traditional curriculum is the College of Charleston, where the preferred nomenclature is “progressive traditional.” Likewise, the new concentration in classical architecture and urbanism at Catholic University, in Washington, D.C. Likewise, for that matter, Notre Dame’s graduate preservation program, whose statement of rationale alludes to what its graduates will be up against only in noting that alternative preservation programs include many with a concentration in the “conservation of Modern architecture.”
Fair enough. Classical and traditional architecture speak for themselves in a language almost everybody understands quite well. Furthermore, a program of preservation that emphasizes the preservation of historic settings as well as the historic buildings that are within will naturally recognize that new architecture in traditional styles is intrinsic to the propagation of historic districts – and to the salvation, more broadly, of the built environment of cities and towns whether they are blessed with historic districts or not.
So tiptoe through the tulips if you must, but please do bring this wisdom back into the world of architecture education, where it is so sadly lacking in most places. In doing so, Notre Dame does the world a greater service than it may realize.